The journey into yoga is different for each person. Some start practicing it in order to get more flexible or more fit. Others, for a better sleep or to reduce the stress level. Or to get rid of the back pains. Or to get a better understanding of themselves. It doesn’t really matter; as long as they practice it, they will get all those benefits and even more.
Instagram overflows with photos of acrobatic postures. Some might be drawn to those photos; others might be intimidated. It doesn’t really matter; yoga is an inclusive and tolerant practice: if you never get into the Royal Pigeon, or the Scorpion, it doesn’t make you less of a yogi.
At least, that’s our view on the matter.
We start today a series of podcasts in which we talk with yoga teachers and yoga practitioners, in order to see their view. We talk with them about their beginnings of yoga practice, about their personal relationship with yoga and, in a shallower note, about their yoga wear.
Mihaela Dancs is a contemporary dance choreographer and dancer and an Ashtanga yoga teacher based in Bucharest; she calls this dynamic practice “her love”.
In our conversation, we talked a lot about how dance and yoga are more interconnected than one would think.
She’s also a surfer and a snowboarder, which she sees as other forms of yoga practice.
Did we make you curious? You can listen to our conversation in Romanian or read it in English.
- The beginnings
Suav: Mihaela, how did you discover yoga?
Mihaela: Should I tell you about my first contact with yoga, or about the moment I started to practice?
M: OK. I heard about yoga for the first time from my father and I discovered it in a very spectacular way: without seeing him, I heard him. And I got really scared, because he was making some apocalyptic sounds, it seemed he wasn’t feeling well. I saw him afterwards: he was down on his knees, with his tongue out and he was breathing. I found out later that the pose was called the Lion Pose and that it has certain benefits. My father was travelling a lot to India and, I don’t know for sure, but it is possible he found out about yoga and started to practice due to his tight connection with India.
Then I got a book with the asanas from Sivananda yoga. And I was browsing it; it was nice and beautifully colored, there were pictures with a lady dressed very simply, with yellow and blue; it was appealing to me visually, but I wasn’t practicing.
Around 2004, when I started dancing, that is, when I started to practice the contemporary dance seriously, I realized I wasn’t very flexible and I couldn’t do much with my body; and I saw people around me using yoga poses for their warm-up, so I told myself that yoga would help me become a better dancer.
S: Did it help you?
M: I think so, but not only in this sense, of becoming more flexible and stronger; it also helped me probably at other levels. I started to practice right away; I found out who was teaching yoga classes in Bucharest. My first yoga teacher was Irene Zaarour, probably the first teacher of many of the current yoga teachers. She was teaching hatha yoga at the time and, very soon, she started to teach vinyasa – ashtanga yoga.
For a while, because she moved to a location where it was difficult to me to get to, I started to attend Carlos’ classes. Carlos was teaching yogilates, a mix between yoga and Pilates. His approach was slightly different and I was resonating with it. He spoke a lot about the present moment, about acceptance, about being present, and I was connecting his words with what was happening in the dance studio when I started improvising.
S: How did you end up teaching?
M: In the beginning, people came to The National Dance Center Bucharest, where I had a rehearsal space, and, because I had been already practicing yoga for a few years, I had my own sequence which I was using as a warm-up routine. I started to invite people over. I told them ‘look, I have this space today/ tomorrow/ the day after tomorrow; starting 10 o’clock, I will have an hour of yoga practice. If you’re interested, come over.’ They came and… I was not in front of them, telling them what to do. I was practicing and they were following my lead. (laughing) Look at me and follow me.
S: So you taught yoga before being a certified yoga teacher 😊.
M: Absolutely. I didn’t have a clue about that. Anyway, I was watching them and guiding them now and then.
Then, I went to Portugal and I attended an Iyengar workshop. I was studying with a teacher who had a studio with all the ropes, props – bricks, bolsters – and I was fascinated by the attention for the alignment, which I hadn’t find at the classes I attended in Bucharest. I had already started to gather information from the dance as well, I started to be aware of my body, also due to the contemporary dance courses. I started to know myself and to know basic things like parallel, angles, front-back, right-left; coordination, that is. And, now and then, when I was looking around me, I realized that people who were practicing yoga didn’t have enough information in order to practice safely. I mean, not to injure themselves. Because, if you get incorrectly into a pose for a few times, it’s not that bad, but, in time, you create a pattern and you can’t get rid of it and, sooner or later, you hurt yourself. That seemed important to me: the alignment is sacred. And I wanted to pass this information on.
It was nice, actually, that the final push came from Carlos. He told me ‘Alexandra (he calls me Alexandra; Irene also calls me Alexandra), look, if you’re interested, you could replace me when I’m out of Bucharest and I’m not able to teach some classes’. I didn’t necessarily want to do it, but I thought ‘hey, I can be in this situation’. I hadn’t thought about it before, but everything came together quite nicely: the people who came to The National Dance Center Bucharest and were practicing with me, and Carlos’ feedback.
I was teaching yoga classes in two places: in the Boarder’s loft and somewhere close to Piata Chibrit, in a space where there were yoga classes, kids dance classes (by the way, I also taught some kids dance classes there) and even a doctor’s office. That’s how I ended up teaching yoga classes. I did this for a year or two and then I stopped, because my schedule was very busy and I wasn’t able to accommodate everything – dance, travelling and classes – and I took a long break. And then I started again because a friend asked me if I wanted to do it again and I said ‘why not?! (it was 2017) But I want to attend a school, to get my certificate’, about which I had no idea before. And I searched quite a long time for a school that would propose something I would resonate with and I finally attended the 200 hours that give you a paper that allows you to pass on some information. Anyway, the 200 hours topic is another story and we can talk a lot about it, about what it means to want to become a yoga teacher and not to have too much practice behind you and to think that the 200 hours make you a teacher. I think it is a stage it’s good to go through, but it is not enough.
- Relationship with yoga
S: That’s what I was about to ask you: what’s your relationship with yoga now and how do you practice. Because I heard it before; it is not enough to attend the yoga teacher training, it is rather a continuous relationship and development.
M: It’s true. You learn all the time, things change, they transform; you change, your relationship with your practice changes…
S: You learn by yourself or you go to courses?
M: Both. I go to courses every time my schedule allows; I am very serious about going to courses, because you need to get information from outside sources. And I also learn individually; I like being self-taught; somehow, that’s how I progressed with dance, as well. But it’s important to have a teacher, to have somebody to guide you; at some point, no matter how serious you are, it’s not enough. In addition, when you have been practicing for a long time, you go through different stages of self-awareness or you get injured. Not necessarily because of the practice, but for other reasons: either your ambition is through the roof and you want to get fast results, or you have a snowboard accident, or you fall off the bike… and then your practice changes. And it’s wonderful to have someone to guide you in these rather complicated moments. There are obstacles; the more you practice, you find another obstacle. How will you pass over it?
S: You talked about the importance of alignment in order to avoid injuries and also about the fact that sometimes one’s ambition is too big. What is truly important: to push yourself or to respect your body’s limitations? Or, how these two things get along?
M: I think that respecting your limits and listening to yourself doesn’t necessarily mean not to overcome your limits. I think it is important to know what is driving you, what motivates you, what makes you want to master some complex pose which, if you look from outside, looks spectacular, acrobatic. You overcome your limits by practicing with devotion and discipline and continuously.
I love to tell those who come to my classes (and I don’t even know if I’m quoting somebody or I just got to be convinced about it 😊) to have the patience to dissolve the limits, not with ambition, but with patience and with breathing. That means to reach that limit that you know and not to push with despair, not to become a competition with yourself, with those around you, with Instagram… Because things eventually happen; as you practice, you start to have a more and more profound control of your body and your mind and you get to master those poses and to do things that at some point seemed complicated or impossible to reach.
But this is not the purpose, this is only the surface. Because many times we relate to the image, to the form, and we stop at this level. But, in reality, the form is a consequence of some more subtle elements that we work with and which we include in our practice. But we need to give it time; things don’t happen very fast.
It is interesting; it is also related to this visual bombing. It is not my approach. I mean, I will never post pictures, I don’t know… Or maybe I will, that’s another thing I don’t know. But, for now, it is not my approach.
There are magnificent instructors, teachers with this approach, but they support the image with incredible content. And, in this case, why not? It’s about all that focus and all the seriousness and all the discipline which are shown in this way, in the way one exists and breathes within a pose, but it’s not only about that.
And that’s the risk: there are people whose only contact with yoga was through a spectacular image and maybe they think it’s only about it. I don’t know… Maybe that’s a way to draw people toward yoga and maybe, out of those who are drawn only by something aesthetic, some continue to practice, to invest time and they go beyond this level.
This seems important to me: to add some content, and when I say content, I mean something that comes from the personal experience. ‘Cause we also have the option of fabulous image supported by a fabulous quotation, but then where is your experience as a practitioner and what do you pay forward?
S: You were saying that you started practicing yoga in order to help you to be more flexible for dance, but it helped you in other aspects, as well. What would be the most important of them?
M: I was talking to someone the other day and I was telling them I thought I was practicing yoga before I started to practice yoga, because, in dance, when I improvise, I work with elements that are also found in the yoga practice: a certain attention, the fact that you stay grounded in the present, that you breathe a certain way, that you focus on several things in the same time… And all this work builds a state of awareness that is similar, actually identical as the one you get during yoga. These elements are very present, those you find both in dance and yoga.
And, in fact, I think they are present in everything you do with pleasure; everything that absorbs you. I mean, I practice yoga when I’m on the surf board or on the snowboard… I know it sounds… It’s actually about being in the flow, it’s about a certain focus, it’s about being very present in what you’re doing at that moment. There’s no more past, no more future, only pure present. And all your body, all your being and your mind and everything you are and you represent are engaged in that very thing you’re doing, which, for a while, absorbs you.
S: And here’s how we get back to Carlos’ speech about presence.
M: Exactly! When I started attending his classes, I was fascinated about this speech. And I was like ‘look how everything is related! ‘Cause when I dance and improvise, I work with these things’.
S: So, everything is related in your life!
M: Yes. Things are related and influence each other. And it’s wonderful when you manage to harmonize them. That’s another thing that yoga teaches you – harmony, balance… I keep hearing this: yoga is a life style. And I would love to say it’s a life style, but I think I’m still working on it. It’s a long journey and you learn all the time. And I learn a lot from my classes. So rich is this universe and this meeting with different people and minds and souls and bodies…
Regarding the relationship with yoga and how it evolves in time, for a while, it seemed it was about ‘hey, I feel so great after a yoga practice!’. But it’s not all the time like this. As you practice more and constantly, because it is a process of deep self-discovery, all kind of things get to the surface. Self-discovery implies to find things that you don’t necessarily like and you’re not happy with. It’s not only about well-being and relaxation, it’s also about you understanding that things have two sides and that sometimes you’re rather low or dark.
This brings me to limits. If you remain within your limits, within your safe zone, it is more difficult to overcome these moments that are a bit more complicated.
- Yoga wear
S: I have one last question, which is very superficial . I mean, you speak about the depth of the consciousness and I come up with this: what do you wear at yoga and how you chose your clothes?
M: At teacher training, we were taught to dress as simple as possible and in light colors, because otherwise we attract things that are less tangible. You know how black attracts the heat and white reflects it… When I practice, I put on clothes that let me move very easily, that do not disrupt my practice.
When I teach, it’s different. Sometimes, because I don’ t want to waste time changing clothes, I keep on the same clothes; so, whatever I wear on the street, I wear in the studio as well, as long as it’s comfortable enough. By the way, were you at that class when I forgot to bring yoga pants and I taught in jeans ? (laughs) Well, it was not very comfortable, but it is possible to teach in jeans.
It’s important for the clothes to be comfortable, to let the body move, to feel good wearing them. The fabric must be of good quality and durable, because I wash them very often. A fabric that breathes… Actually, I want to feel myself, it is also an important factor. I have this thing: it happens to put a piece of clothing on and to say ‘it’s obvious we’re the same, we’ll not get apart’!
S: Thank you!
M: And I thank you!